The Review: NYCC Encores! production of Call Me Madam
Encores! latest, Call Me Madam is billed as a light political satire musical from the 1950’s, but it fits quite well in the landscape of modern America, where politicians, like Congressman Wilkins, delightfully portrayed with charm by the always delightful Adam Heller (Off-Broadway’s Popcorn Falls), proclaim their political affiliations, “I’m the Republican“, at every moment they can. But in this particularly agreeable, although not exactly politically correct musical that spoofs with a wink and smile; American politics, foreign policy, and the tendency for throwing millions of dollars to needy countries without much thought or concern, at least this Republican and his two charmingly friendly Democrats, Senator Gallagher, played sweetly by the brilliant Brad Oscar (Broadway’s Something Rotten!), and Senator Brockbank, played adorably by Stanley Wayne Mathis (Broadway’s Nice Work If You Can Get It), they easily can join together in a across the aisle soft-shoe song and dance, “They Like Ike” linking arms and tipping their hats most adorably to us all. It’s exactly what this light and warm musical does best, be charming and sweet, while giving us something to smile and hum about for days to come.
It’s a delightfully old fashioned Irving Berlin (music and lyrics: Holiday Inn) musical, with a sweet natured book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (The Sound of Music with a score by Rodgers& Hammerstein): people bypassing the difficulties of political dysfunction and non-alignment, and enjoying a few cocktails and smiles all together, occasionally participating in a friendly non-partisan “Washington Square Dance” party thrown by a socialite songstress. It’s pure heaven, and as the stunningly harmonious overture, delivered by Encores! Music Director Rob Berman (Broadway’s Tuck Everlasting) and the Encores! Orchestra with a musical perfection that would make my big band father smile with with pleasure, fills the beautiful New York City Center, where Encores! skillfully is bringing back Call Me Madam, to celebrate NYCC’s 75th Anniversary season reveling in the return to simpler times. This is by far not the greatest of musicals of its time period, especially when taking into account the stellar creative team behind it. When it first premiered back on October 12, 1950 at the Imperial Theatre, it did laid claim to a record advance sale of $2 million dollars and grossing over its run of 644 performances more than $4 million. This probably had more to do with its star, the power house legend herself, Ethel Merman, than its construction, although The New York Times thought it was one of Berlin’s “most enchanting scores” and the New York Post stated that Merman was “indescribably soul-satisfying“. The show’s back story is absolutely charming though, as if it was pulled right out of an old fashioned musical itself. The book writer Lindsay, a man widely known to be very interested in Washington’s political maneuverings, had the idea, after watching American icon, Ethel Merman sunning herself beside a swimming pool, that a musical about society doyenne Perle Meste would be the perfect next vehicle for the Broadway legend. And even though she wasn’t convinced originally (she wanted to star in something far more serious), history tells a different story, and Call Me Madam became another legendary Tony Award winning performance for the actress. But surprisingly, even after such a solid success on Broadway and many popular years on tour, Call Me Madam fell by the wayside, forgotten while other Berlin masterpieces continued to live on and on.
In 1995, Encores!, as it embarked on its second season, felt that it needed a financial hit in order to secure its place in New York City’s theatrical landscape and keep the Encore ball rolling forward. It was decided, that 45 years after its debut, Encores! would open the 1995 Encores! season starring Tyne Daly, with the hope that the star would attract not only the critics, but the public’s theatrical dollars. It was a resounding success, and the current Encores! folk decided to bring back all the freshness and sassiness that resides so sweetly in this satire. And with the casting of the phenomenal Tony-nominee Carmen Cusack (Broadway’s Bright Star) as the charming and undeniably unrefined Sally Adams, the “chosen party giver”, dressed to perfection in gloriously curvy designs by costume designer, Jen Caprio (Broadway’s Falsettos, Off-Broadway’s Daniel’s Husband), it’s an undeniable old-fashioned Lichtenburg treat that shouldn’t be missed. Call Me Madam is joyful and fun and as directed with a skilled hand by Casey Hushion (currently resident/ associate director of Broadway’s Mean Girls, The Prom), even with the slowness of Act One and repetitive nature of its numerous reprises, this old classic can’t be ignored. “Reprise“, I will say, could easily be the operative word for the writing style of this particular type of musicals, and Call Me Madam, like the other musicals of that era, utilizes the repeat button a few too many times, reminding me of the enjoyable but somewhat dusty South Pacific, and that too often reprised number, “Some Enchanted Evening“.
Call Me Madam follows somewhat closely to the real life story and surprising rise of the larger than life Perle Mesta, who was gifted with the title of Ambassador to Luxembourg; an appointment that was basically a political favor for the friendly, fun, and very wealthy socialite, but it was also pretty ground-breaking for any woman at this time in history. Putting aside the swampiness of the premise, the fictional Sally Adams, the centerpiece of this fabulous musical gem of a party, finds herself dancing off to the fictional country of Lichtenburg, mainly because of her ability to throw a great big fun party, totally showcased in the delicious opening number, “The Hostess with the Mostes’ On the Ball“; a catch phrase that lives on and on. As with most of this show, especially the joyful but silly “Something To Dance About” that kicks off the much better Act Two, some of the more lightweight songs, for the most part, are disposable. It’s almost distracting sometimes that a few of the songs remind us, just slightly, of other better numbers from other shows, but there are enough original slices of musical heaven to make it all worth while, even if you are constantly reminded of better shows from the 50’s like, The King and I, Carousel, and My Fair Lady.
Joining Sally on the journey is the absolutely amazing and lovingly adorkable son of a Congressman, Kenneth Gibson, played to glorious perfection by the beautifully voiced Jason Gotay (Broadway’s Peter Parker in Spider- Man: Turn Off the Dark) [did I put enough positive descriptives there?], who knows far more about the country than the Ambassador ever intends to learn or understand (once again, put aside the questionable swampiness of that set-up). These two talented souls are the main reasons to see this enjoyable Encores! production. They are simply magnificent and completely engaging throughout, especially when they sing probably the most famously delightful song, “You’re Just In Love“. It’s by far the best moment of the night. It’s a stellar rendition of the song that Ethel Merman insisted on being written just so she had a chance to sing a duet with her fantastic co-star Russell Nype. It has been said that nightly encores (click here to hear them sing this lovely song) were demanded of Merman and Nype back in 1950, and it’s no wonder, the song is a standout, especially with Cusack and Gotay lending their wonderful and harmonious pipes to the number. Gotay dazzles, but not just here. His solo, “Once Upon A Time, Today” is just as beautifully as Cusack’s “The Best Thing For You” which she lovingly duets with the handsome and velvety voiced Ben Davis (Broadway’s 2003 Tony Honor for La bohème), the head politician in Lichtenburg, Cosmo Constantine. Their romance is delightful, quick and straight to the point, filling us up with its charming organic cheese, a speciality of Lichtenburg. He’s gloriously handsome even when belting out the innocuous and slight “Lichtenburg“, a song about women and exported cheese that dulls his rich vocals with its questionablely silly lyrics. Luckily for him and for us, he is given many more opportunities to show what a perfect foil he is for the sexy and exciting Cusack. And for that we are eternally grateful.
Shining just as brightly is the perfectly hilarious and stunningly voiced Lauren Worsham (NYCC Gala’s Sunday in the Park with George) as the sweet and timid Princess Maria, daughter to the Grand Duke Otto (the very funny Darrell Hammond) and the Grand Duchess Sophie (the absolutely brilliant Carol Kane). Her pair as royal parents are brilliantly funny, but it is Worsham that enlivens the stage every time she steps out from the wings, even when performing the perfectly ridiculous song and dance number, “The Ocarina“. It’s hilariously silly but with the stunningly fun choreography by Denis Jones (Upcoming Broadway’s Tootsie, Encores!: Hey, Look Me Over!) and Worsham’s delivery, it wins us over with ease. But it is in the more romantically charged moments, particularly the sweet and charming “It’s A Lovely Day Today” and the trepidatious manner of her vocals that engages us, and when she gets down on one knee, we can’t help but love her all the more.
Call Me Madam is as joyfully a night as you can hope for, honoring all that Encores! represents. On top of all the fun and witty merriment in Lichtenburg, we also are given the treat of seeing video sensation Randy Rainbow ham it up in his signature pink glasses as the Prime Minister of Lichtenburg, Sebastian Sebastian, as well as the sadly underused, Michael Benjamin Washington (2005 Broadway revival La Cage Aux Folles) as Pemberton Maxwell, a character who struggles at first against the unorthodox manner of Cusack’s Sally Adams, but is forced, as we all are, to succumb to her fabulousness. Both deliver exactly what is needed in these small roles, enhancing Call Me Madam with the exact right amount of humor and charm.
The complicated real life trouble that exists in politics presently when money and power collide is hard not to notice and wince, even when laughing at the smart jabs of being so happy “I should be investigated“, but with Call Me Madam, leave those real world troubles outside, and shake the hand of the opposing party with glee, as we happily square dance the night away chaperoned and hosted by the magnificent and magnanimous Carmen Cusack, a power house in her own right, who certainly knows how to throw a grand ol’ party. Here’s hoping you have an invite or a hot little ticket in your pocket.
FLORRIE BAGEL, DANIEL BERRYMAN, TAELER ELYSE CYRUS, LESLIE FLESNER,
TA’NIKA GIBSON, CHRISTOPHER GURR, LEAH HOROWITZ, JAVIER IGNACIO,
MAX KUMANGAI, MATT LOEHR, SKYE MATTOX, BRANDT MARTINEZ,
TIMOTHY MCDEVITT, HARRIS MILGRIM, BETHANY MOORE, MARY PAGE NANCE,
ROBBIE ROBY, KATHY VOYTKO, SUMI YU, RICARDO A. ZAYAS
Music Director and Conductor: Rob Berman
Associate Music Director and Choral Preparation: Ben Whiteley
Violins: Suzanne Ornstein, Belinda Whitney, Mineko Yajima, Maura Giannini, Laura Seaton-Finn, Christoph Franzgrote, Lisa Matricardi, Kristina Musser, Lorra Bayliss; Violas: David Blinn, Shelley Holland Moritz, Carla Fabiani; Celli: Katherine Cherbas, Deborah Assael-Migliore; Bass: Richard Sarpola; Woodwinds: Steve Kenyon, Lino Gomez, David Young, Todd Groves, John Winder; French Horn: Zohar Schondorf; Trumpets:Don Downs, Glenn Drewes, Wayne du Maine; Trombones: Bruce Bonvissuto, Randy Andos; Drums/Percussion: Eric Poland; Guitar; Jay Berliner; Piano: David Gursky.
To secure your seats, please visit NYCityCenter.org, call CityTix at 212.581.1212,
or visit the New York City Center Box Office at 131 W 55th St